Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Boyden bunts

[Continuing coverage of the 2009 Singularity Summit.]

I skipped blogging on the last talk by Gary Drescher (abstract and bio), which was a dense philosophical lecture about game theory and optimal choices. I couldn't possibly have condensed it, and it wasn't especially relevant to the Singularity either. (He tried to tie it in at the end just by saying that all this stuff will be useful as we confront the many choices we have in front of us.)

Next up is Ed Boyden of the M.I.T. Media Lab on "Synthetic Neurobiology: Optically Engineering the Brain to Augment Its Function." (Abstract and bio.) Boyden is focusing on something more practical and near-future (well, relative to everything else that's been discussed): engineering the biological brain.

Ed Boyden on stage at the 2009 Singularity Summit

He asks the question, what is the abstraction layer at which we should begin engineering the brain? He says it's hard to even know where to begin. (As I detailed in my essay, this question is implicitly at the core of any attempt to achieve A.I.)

Boyden claims that most treatments we come up with to deal with brain disorders (whether Alzheimer's or anxiety) can easily be used as enhancements for people who do not have disorders but just want to improve their calmness or memory. There's no distinction, he seems to be saying.

Boyden is outlining the way that certain types of light or radiation can be used to activate specific sets of neurons. For disorders that are caused by particular groups of neurons having shut down, this technique might be used to reactivate them. Brace yourself: I'm guessing the promised applications are not just therapeutic.

Boyden is plowing rapidly through some complex neurobiological information. He speaks amazingly quickly, and that's not quite a good thing, particularly for a topic like this. Now that he's at the end of the talk, he makes the reason clear, with a slide listing off the huge number of names of researchers whose work he's cited. He was attempting to give an overview (and also, I think, to mention the work of as many friends and colleagues as possible), but this is really not a fitting venue for such a thing.

A questioner asks about the dangers of enhancement, particularly if it falls first into the hands of tyrants; he asks if we shouldn't be focusing on improving our character instead of our speed and agility. Boyden bunts: the brain is an integrated system, you see, and improving one thing improves everything.

Oh, sure. That explains why the smartest people always have the greatest emotional intelligence as well. Has Boyden read any of the last forty years of psychological findings? Or, say, anything written by the guys whose names are written on the walls of the auditorium?



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